'˜The best place in Britain for women in tech'

LEEDS SHOULD aim to become the best place in Britain to be a woman working in technology.

Martha Lane Fox
Martha Lane Fox

That was one of the calls made at the launch of a new action plan to solve the growing skills gap in Yorkshire’s digital economy.

“Martha Lane Fox has said she wants the UK to be the best place in the world for women to be working in tech,” said Helen Wollaston, chief executive of the WISE Campaign.

“How about we say Leeds be the best place in the UK to be a women working in tech.”

She added that 30 per cent of Sky’s new recruits in Leeds are female, which is nearly double the demographic in the information and communications technology sector’s 17 per cent.

“I would love the digital strategy to have that aspiration to say let’s get 30 per cent of the technology workforce in Leeds being women,” said Ms Wollaston, whose mission is to get one million more women in the UK’s science, technology, engineering and maths workforce.

Speaking on the eve of International Women’s Day, she told The Yorkshire Post: “We want to make sure the message gets out to women, girls, families and teachers there are some real opportunities here in Leeds that pay good money and have good prospects.”

The action plan is a joint effort between employers, education providers and the local authority.

Councillor James Lewis, deputy leader of Leeds council, said it has two roles; “one is to try and fill the skills gap, but also... to challenge, inspire and encourage people to get involved from across the city, the country and the world to want to come and work in the Leeds digital sector and create that future pipeline of talent”.

The city is home to 1,350 digital companies with 10,000 employees working in the sector. There are estimated to be 640 vacancies for mid-level tech jobs in the city.

It is feared that the shortage of suitable staff might force employers to move elsewhere.

Stephanie Burras, chief executive of the Ahead Partnership social enterprise, warned that the city will “fall flat on its face” if it does not invest in developing the skills it needs for its growth sectors.

She said: “There is competition for skills, not just within this region from district to district but also from region to region. I see that not just in the digital arena but also in engineering and construction.”

Sanjay Parekh, co-founder of the highly-rated start-up Cocoon, told the audience of business and civic leaders at the Northern Monk Brewing Company headquarters how his smart home security business had to adapt to the lack of skills in the market.

He said: “We started the business in May 2014. Initially we were looking for a certain type of software engineer. The business needs a broad range of skills from machine learning experts to machine testing and what we found was although these people are in this region, we struggled to hire them fast enough and in the right quantity.

“We had to adjust our business plan and pull people in from outside the region and also Europe. It changed how we implemented some of the development processes.”

A new university technical college for digital skills could also be set up to address the problem.

Leeds leading the way

The Digital Skills Action Plan aims to improve links between employers and education providers.

They will work together to design better work placement and experience, improve careers advice and promote the sector in Leeds.

The plan will also support the extension of code clubs to all primary schools in the city.

Other activities include digital careers fairs in Leeds and London, ‘bootcamps’ to get people job-ready, a new digital graduate scheme and the promotion of new apprenticeship standards to employers.

The head of a London-based tech training organisation said Leeds is ahead of many other cities in its joined-up approach.